Have you ever wondered why newspapers are so full of bad news? Or why people often spend so much more time fretting about what’s wrong in their lives instead of appreciating what’s going right? Why do painful experiences take up so much real estate in our memory? And why are they so much easier to recall than pleasurable ones? Why do we often feel that it is our negative experiences that define us rather than our positive ones?
Scientists have coined the term “negativity bias” to describe this phenomenon of how human consciousness relates to the world. Essentially, our negativity bias ensures that experiences of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state and consequent behavior than neutral or positive ones, even when they are of equal intensity.
According to neuroscientists, our brains have developed specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory so that we can learn from them.
On the other hand, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve; we experience them, enjoy them, and quickly forget them.
Accordingly, we use much more brain space to scan and process negative experiences than positive ones, because negative stimuli, if not registered and responded to appropriately, can be fatal.
Out of necessity, we have become masters of fixating on the negative aspects of our lives and environments.
This is only natural.
This negativity bias is what allows us to remain vigilant in our efforts to register and respond to any potential dangers and imminent threats to our well-being—ideally, before it is too late.
The problem is that this negativity bias has a side effect. Since we are always on high alert for potential dangers, the positive aspects of our lives tend to get less attention. When we receive a compliment, for instance, we feel nice for a moment, but then the brain shifts back to a more defensive mode and we forget those warm, positive feelings.
Similarly, if we have nine positive experiences or interactions during the day and one negative experience, it is most likely that at the end of the day we will remember the negative experience most vividly.
We may therefore walk around in a low-level state of hypervigilance and anxiety. As a result, we tend to blow our negative experiences out of proportion and fail to contextualize them within the positive aspects of our life that we have forgotten in moments of stress.
Establishing a positive mindset is therefore quite difficult, as it goes against the grain of our established nature. And yet, maintaining a positive perspective in the midst of hardship is essential to elevating one’s quality of life.
The Rebbe was well aware of the natural tendency of human consciousness to dwell on the negative. Nevertheless, he consistently insisted that we could change our experience of life for the better by making conscious and concerted efforts to focus and dwell on the positive.
Indeed, as mentioned, the Rebbe once referred to his focus on seeing things positively, saying, “I worked on myself to look at things in a positive light, otherwise I could not have survived.”1
When one considers the immense challenges and devastating events the Rebbe experienced in his lifetime, this statement is truly remarkable.
It is worth pointing out that the Rebbe’s approach to dwelling on the positive, or what we refer to throughout this book as his Positivity Bias, was never meant to be a naive white-washing or covering up of actual reality. In fact, what was so unique about the Rebbe’s worldview and motivational theology was that it did not ignore or deny the harsh realities of life; rather, it acknowledged and addressed them head-on.
One example among many is the following response the Rebbe penned to someone who wrote despairingly of their life.
I received your letter in which you describe your economic circumstances and certain other conditions which are the causes of [your] dissatisfaction and lack of spiritual gratification.
If you have a copy of your letter, and will re-read it again in a more objective frame of mind, I think you will come to the conclusion that human life on this earth unfortunately is not free from various factors which bring about unhappiness; and that this is universal, though the causes vary…. To go through life in complete happiness is not destined for man. One of the basic things, however, is to have a clear vision on the fundamental issues, and to cultivate [appropriate expectations and] attitudes.
The ultimate goal is not to completely avoid or remove all challenges or conflicts in one’s life. That, according to the Rebbe, is impossible. And, as we will see, it would not even guarantee our happiness, because so much depends on our perspective in relation to our actual circumstances. It is, however, within our power to “cultivate attitudes” in order to process and integrate all of our experiences, including the negative, in a way that liberates rather than limits our potential for success and happiness. Seeing life from a wider angle than just our own immediate experience is a crucial first step in shifting our negative response patterns.
Interestingly, the Rebbe makes a similar point regarding Maimonides.
In a letter written by the Rebbe to someone regarding the necessity of maintaining an optimistic outlook, he wrote:3
It is clearly observable that to a great and discernible degree, the effect of one’s life events depends largely on how one reacts to them. And who is a better example of this than Maimonides, whose outward life was filled with misfortune, turbulence, suffering, and tragedy—may the Merciful One save us—to a greater degree than the average person. Nevertheless he maintained a very positive—and in today’s vernacular, optimistic—view on life, as articulated in his work, The Guide for the Perplexed.
The Rebbe here refers to the following passage from The Guide for the Perplexed (3:12):
People often think that the evils in the world are more numerous than the good things; many sayings and songs of the Nations dwell on this idea. They say that a good thing is found only exceptionally, while evil things are numerous and lasting. Not only common people make this mistake, but even many who believe that they are wise.
This error results from judging the whole universe by what occurs to a single person. Only an ignorant person believes that the whole universe exists for him alone, as if nothing else required any consideration. If, therefore, anything happens to him contrary to his expectation, he at once concludes that the whole universe is evil. If, however, he would take into consideration the whole universe, form an idea of it, and comprehend what a small portion he is of it, he will find the truth.
When one is able to zoom out from a narrow self-orientation, it becomes possible to appreciate that, all-in-all, Creation is overwhelmingly good and “in order.” Stars in their orbits, seasons turning, mountain heights, ocean depths, birdsong in the morning.
Of course, our lives are also full of worries, dangers, and dramas, but we must not get stuck in our own circumference and fall prey to negative projections and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Contemplating one’s place within the vast wonders of Creation is a time-honored practice of dwelling on the positive.
One significant side-effect of the negativity bias is that we tend to fixate on what is lacking in our lives rather than on what we have.
In another pointed letter,4 written to an individual who complained that he had “never experienced goodness in his life,” the Rebbe wrote:
In response to your letter…in which you write about your current situation and that throughout your life you have not experienced any good….
It seems that you do not sense the contradiction in your letter. For a man whom G‑d has blessed with a wife and children to say that he has never seen any good is ungrateful to an alarming degree…. Hundreds, even thousands, of people pray every day to be blessed with children and would give everything they own to have a single child but have not as of yet merited this….
But you, the recipient of this blessing, which it seems came to you without you having to especially pray for it, don’t recognize the wealth and happiness in the blessings you have, and you write twice in your letter that you have never experienced any good!
It is worth noting that the Rebbe himself never had children and deeply understood this particular pain on a personal level. He was therefore in a unique position, not just spiritually but existentially, to point out the magnificent blessing that this person had received, and that they were, judging from the Rebbe’s response, taking for granted.
Too often we simply don’t keep the good things in our life at the forefront of our mind; we are too busy scanning for threats and dangers. They therefore tend to quietly and quickly recede into the hungry shadows of our long-suffering complaints. These complaints, if left unchecked, naturally override our awareness and skew our evaluation of life.
In another letter to someone who complained about their life, the Rebbe alludes to the blessings recited every morning. These particular blessings take note of and thank G‑d for some of the very basic amenities of human existence: The gift of a new day, the ability to see, the clothes we wear, the earth beneath our feet, and the strength to carry on.
Actively beginning each day by acknowledging the blessings we often take for granted allows us to gain the proper perspective on our life so that we are not overwhelmed by gnawing negativity and anxiety. To the contrary, we are filled with gratitude for all the tiny miracles in our life!
I read [your letter] with great shock. If you pay attention to the simple meaning of the eighteen morning blessings, in which you bless G‑d at the beginning of every day, you will see that you have been blessed with all of them. In addition, you have been blessed with good health, good parents, good education, a good community, a good profession, livelihood, and more.
If so, what is the justification for your complaints?!5
No matter what else is going on in your life, if you are alive you have something to be grateful for; you just need to take the time to recognize and appreciate it.
One way to focus and dwell on the positive is to literally count your blessings every day, no matter how small they may seem. Toward this end, our Sages instituted that we recite (at least) 100 blessings each day.6
This practice of near-constant expressions of gratitude throughout the day has the power to sensitize us to G‑d’s gifts and presence all around us, if we would but take the time to stop and notice. Over time this conscious attention to the blessings in our lives, both large and small, can help shift our default setting from an ungrateful negativity bias to a Positivity Bias focused on appreciation.
R. Dovid Schochet—the president of the Council of Orthodox Rabbis of Toronto—had his first audience with the Rebbe in 1952, when he enrolled in the central Lubavitcher yeshivah in Brooklyn. What he remembers most from that initial meeting was the Rebbe’s guidance on actively appreciating life.
“Don’t take life for granted,” the Rebbe said. “In the morning, when you wake up, thank G‑d for everything that has been given to you. Many people go to sleep at night and, when they wake up in the morning, they expect their shoes to be by their bed where they left them the night before. As they are getting dressed, they complain that the weather is too cold or too hot. Instead, they should be grateful that they are still alive, that their possessions are still with them, that a new day is beginning where they have an opportunity to do many good deeds.”
According to Rabbi Schochet, this was a lesson he never forgot.7
It is important to remember, as explored previously, that the Rebbe spent time as a refugee fleeing across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. He knew firsthand what it meant to lose almost everything. For him to be able to give such advice after experiencing such horrors speaks volumes to his belief in and commitment to this practice of actively invoking and dwelling on the positive.
Indeed, the Rebbe saw the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude as a pillar of Jewish consciousness and spiritual practice.
As the following story conveys,8 the Rebbe cherished Judaism’s daily practice of not taking things for granted above all else.
When R. Nochum Stillerman was a nine-year-old boy growing up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, he used to deliver groceries to community members, including the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, of blessed memory.
She was always very kind to him and would often invite him into her home for cookies and milk.
On one such occasion, he mustered the courage to ask, “Rebbetzin, what is the Rebbe’s favorite prayer?”
She answered, “Of course, all the prayers are important, but yes, there must be one that is closest to the Rebbe’s heart. I don’t know which one that is, but the next time he is here, I will ask him on your behalf.”
The following week, when young Nochum saw the Rebbetzin, she said, “I am so happy to have an answer to your question. It’s a very short prayer. It’s the first prayer we say in the morning, Modeh ani lefanecha—‘I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have restored my soul within me with mercy; Your faithfulness is great.’”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s his favorite.”
Nochum was surprised by this answer. Modeh Ani is such a short prayer and doesn’t even contain G‑d’s name! Indeed, it is the one prayer we recite while still in bed, before getting dressed and formally starting our day. Surely, one of the more elaborate and sophisticated prayers that are recited later in the day must be more important!
But this prayer, above all others, was the Rebbe’s favorite,9 alerting us to the cardinal importance he accorded to actively focusing one’s attention on the gift of life,10 and making this appreciation the cornerstone of one’s consciousness.11
One final point worth making is that from the Rebbe’s perspective, dwelling on the positive is not just about generating a feeling of psychological well-being; it is also an actual investment in our future.
According to Chasidut, the words and feelings of gratitude that we express to G‑d for the blessings we already have in our lives actually become the vessels and vehicles for new blessings and abundance to flow into our lives.
In a certain sense, the expression of gratitude in the present begets what to be grateful for in the future.
In response to a strongly-worded letter written by someone who bitterly complained that they lacked any positive aspects in their life due to their myriad struggles, the Rebbe wrote:12
I’m not implying that one is supposed to struggle for a living or not enjoy perfect health [G‑d forbid]. My point is that perhaps the reason for your weak health and your difficulties in earning a living is your failure to appreciate G‑d’s blessings to you in a far more basic matter than perfect health and abundant sustenance—the blessing of sons and daughters who follow the ways of G‑d [for instance]. When one does not recognize the explicit good bestowed [on them] from Above, particularly when one’s lack of recognition is so extreme that it results in statements such as you express in your letter, is it any wonder that [more] blessings are not forthcoming from Above in other matters?
My hope is that these few lines will suffice to open your eyes to see your situation in its true light. And when you begin to serve G‑d with a true and inner joy, surely G‑d will increase His blessings also in regard to health and sustenance…
In another letter,13 the Rebbe makes a similar point and highlights the importance of expressing appreciation to G‑d for the blessings one has in one’s life already before asking for more:
Obviously you must pray that G‑d fulfill all your needs from His full hand…but it must be preceded by thankfulness for His abundant kindness to you.
If we want more good in our lives and in the world, we must actively acknowledge and deeply integrate the positive aspects of life that we are already experiencing and be grateful to G‑d, who provides that good.
To do this we must counter the natural tendency to focus on the negative aspects of life surrounding us. Not that we should blind ourselves to the many threats and dangers in our midst, but we must learn to actively dwell on the positive that we do possess so that we are not overwhelmed by constant anxiety and feelings of lack, which block the flow of blessings that G‑d wants to funnel into our lives.
Heartfelt appreciation opens the gates for G‑d’s abundance!